Much has been written about President Abraham Lincoln’s life, but not nearly as much attention has been paid to his death. In Lincoln’s Final Hours, Kathryn Canavan gives her readers an in-depth look at the president’s last moments. The University Press of Kentucky has asked her about her inspiration, her research, and her thoughts on the first presidential assassination.
Why did you write Lincoln’s Final Hours?
It was the nation’s first presidential assassination. It was also the most dramatic. A dashing actor shot the president in a crowded theater, jumped to the stage in front of 1,700 people and still made a clean getaway. But I was stunned when I learned that, in 150 years, no one had ever written a book about what else was happening inside Petersen’s Boardinghouse on the night President Lincoln died there. One example: John Wilkes Booth’s childhood pal was burning Booth’s confession in an upstairs bedroom. I set out to find the true stories of the workers, boarders, and neighbors who witnessed what went on in the death room and behind the scenes.
What makes your book different from other books about Lincoln and his assassination?
I began my journalism career as a crime writer, and Lincoln’s assassination was the most consequential crime in American history. I mined diaries and letters and interviews for details that might otherwise be lost to history. One example: John Wilkes Booth was humming on his way to kill the president.
What do you think is most overlooked in histories of Lincoln’s assassination?
Two things, actually: first, many assassination stories focus on famous figures but ignore the ordinary people who were caught up in this extraordinary event. And second, some histories don’t drill deep enough to get the very small details that attend all great events. Details build pictures in our minds. What was William Petersen doing when President Lincoln was shot? He was playing cards.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching/writing this book?
I expected that Booth would be the only villain. I learned that, humans being what we are, there were several people who acted badly. For example, Mose Sanford, a worker in the undertaker’s office who was entrusted with the president’s temporary coffin, unscrewed the lid and went fishing for relics. He stole parts of the president’s shirt.
How integral were the acts of the other conspirators? Why do you think their crimes are largely overlooked?
Well, Booth was the mastermind. Not only that, he was a larger-than-life figure. It was his personality that drew the others into the plot. He knew the theater so well that he bet—successfully—that he could shoot the president, jump 10–12 feet to the stage, deliver a soliloquy, and still get away scot-free.
What do you think was Booth’s biggest mistake in planning and executing his conspiracy?
His mindset. John Wilkes Booth truly thought Abraham Lincoln was a tyrant bent on becoming king of America. He thought he’d be hailed as a hero for stopping that. He was so cocksure that he’d be celebrated that he took his keychain with him on the run—as if he’d ever be able to return to Washington. Imagine his shock when he was hiding out in a Maryland pine thicket and his guide brought him the newspapers with headlines that were anything but what he expected. He was labeled a “desperado” and a “hellhound of treason.”
What is it like to visit the Petersen’s Boardinghouse today?
Petersen House is a tourist attraction, and, as you might imagine, people from around the world enter in every kind of dress. Often they have a very casual attitude—until they reach the small back bedroom where President Lincoln died. Then, no matter who they are or where they hail from, they almost invariably fall silent. There’s just something reverential about that room—the place where America’s greatest president drew his last breath. It is a hallowed place every American should visit. I felt honored and thankful that the National Park Service historians and rangers allowed me to research there.
Do you think William Peterson was complicit in the assassination?
Not at all, but he was guilty of avarice. With a large assist from the researchers in the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, I found paperwork proving Mr. Petersen billed—really overbilled— the federal government for all the linens spotted with the president’s blood, and even for his own time and his servants’ time. Historian Erik Larson, in his review of the book, said Mr. Petersen’s action must rank as the single-most petty act by any one individual in the history of America.
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